Panthers’ Smith likes revamped offense
By Mike Cranston
CHARLOTTE ó Steve Smith split wide right Thursday while his old buddy, Muhsin Muhammad, and fellow newcomer, D.J. Hackett, lined up as receivers on the other side.
Smith looked over and saw Jake Delhomme, back from elbow surgery, under center. Delhomme was behind a mammoth, new-look offensive line that included jumbo rookie Jeff Otah.
After two years of carrying Carolina’s bumbling offense, the Panthers’ star receiver liked the view.
“I think we finally made an upgrade compared to the years prior,” Smith said after the offseason workout. “As those guys had left we really hadn’t replenished. We have finally, and I can honestly see a big difference.”
The Panthers hope the tweaking will eliminate the constant double teams Smith faced the last two years and jump-start an anemic, unbalanced offense that ranked 29th in the NFL last season.
“It’s very exciting,” said Smith, who led the NFL in catches, yards receiving and touchdowns in 2005, only to see his numbers decline the past two years. “It’ll add a little extra to it as obviously Jake is coming in, feeling good and looking great. It seems like he has a stronger arm and he’s not showing any weakness as far as with that major surgery. With those two acquisitions (at receiver) and obviously some of the big guys on the offensive line…”
As Smith went on to praise Otah, calling his performance at Thursday’s optional workout “outstanding,” one of the symbols of Carolina’s offensive ineptitude in 2007 began speaking to reporters just a few yards away.
Dwayne Jarrett, who was supposed to replace the released Keyshawn Johnson last year as the No. 2 receiver, was explaining his dismal rookie season when he struggled to learn the playbook and get separation off the line of scrimmage.
“I think I’ve improved so much in the last year and now I’m taking it one step at a time,” Jarrett said. “I’m paying more attention to detail. … It’s so much easier than last year.”
Jarrett, a second-round pick, spent last season mostly on the inactive list on game days, unable to beat out the unheralded Drew Carter and Keary Colbert. Both were released in the offseason after their minuscule production left opposing teams able to focus all their efforts on stopping Smith.
The revolving door at quarterback made things even worse. After Delhomme was lost for the season in Week 3, the Panthers went through the ineffective David Carr, 44-year-old Vinny Testaverde and undrafted rookie Matt Moore.
Playing for four quarterbacks and getting little help from his fellow receivers, Smith still caught 87 passes for 1,002 yards and seven touchdowns. While Smith didn’t make the Pro Bowl for the first time in three years, he saw one positive from the 7-9 season: playing with the ancient Testaverde.
“Vinny gave me a lot of information because he played for so long and he played with multiple offensive coordinators, different kinds of receivers,” Smith said. “I was able to take all of his knowledge. He was teaching me things he saw from some of these great wide receivers he played with back in the 1600s.”
Testaverde has retired, but Delhomme continues to recover well from ligament-replacement surgery. The Panthers also expect to have a better running game after they overhauled the offensive line and drafted running back Jonathan Stewart in the first round.
Muhammad (12 seasons, 742 catches) and Hackett (4 seasons, 105 catches) provide receiving options after Smith. Muhammad and Smith were teammates in Carolina’s Super Bowl season in 2003 and have remained good friends.
The upgrade could make Jarrett invisible again in 2008.
“I think that’s good for myself to have another guy as a veteran to look up to,” Jarrett insisted. “Moose and D.J. have been in the league five-plus years, and as far as me just learning from them and taking anything I can to get better.”
Smith, who criticized Jarrett last season and earlier this year, brushed off a question about him Thursday. But the fiery Smith is clearly happy with the moves the Panthers have made after consecutive seasons of few points and no playoff games.
“Life is good,” Smith said. “Life is great, actually. It beats the alternative ó death.””